This week a report into alleged Russian state interference in UK elections by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) will be released — over two years since the report began and over 9 months since it was fully completed and presented to Boris Johnson in October 2019.
The government’s line on the initial reason for the delay was that the ISC must be up and running again following its disbandment after the dissolution of Parliament before the 2019 election — an excuse described as ‘entirely bogus’ by the former ISC chairman, Dominic Grieve. Government critics suspect that the report may contain damning information for the Conservatives that they did not want to release before an election, for fear of significant political damage.
Despite Johnson’s reluctance to publish the report and an attempt to instate close supporter Chris Grayling as Chair of the Independent ISC (until opposition members of the committee chose to support the vastly more experienced Julian Lewis, resulting in his expulsion from the Conservative Party), the government and the media are still attempting to shift the blame of Russian interference on former Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
On July 16, the government, in what can be seen as an act of damage control, announced that Russian hackers had leaked and ‘amplified’ the document on US-UK trade talks which Labour used in the 2019 election as supposed evidence of NHS privatisation. Following the government’s announcement, ITV news reporter Fred Dimbleby doorstepped Corbyn asking if he ‘helped those attacking our election’, prompting the former Labour leader to slam his door in retaliation. During Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as party leader, Conservatives and the right-wing media were keen to paint him as close to Russia in a smear campaign against him akin to the ‘Red Scare’ in the 1960s; and this culture is still alive.
BBC Newsnight were criticised for breaching impartiality in 2017 for Photoshopping an image of Corbyn to make his hat appear ‘more Russian’, against a backdrop of Moscow’s skyline. These allegations were of course denied. In 2018 Corbyn faced more criticism for his perceived sympathy towards the Kremlin following the Salisbury poisoning where his attempt at a more ‘decisive, proportionate’ approach ‘based on clear evidence’, was met with derision from the Conservatives and MPs on the right of his own party who were in favour of swift and immediate action against the Russian state. At PMQs in 2019 Boris Johnson said that he thinks, ‘Britain’s friends’ lie in ‘Paris, Berlin and the Whitehouse’, whereas Corbyn thinks they lie in ‘The Kremlin, Tehran and Caracas’.
While the British left has historically been accused of sympathising with the Kremlin and other socialist regimes, stretching back to the Soviet Union — this being an easy line of attack for the media and the right in aligning certain politicians with the former communist superpower — the true benefactors of support from the Russian state in recent years have been none other than the Conservatives, through donations from Russian oligarchs. These oligarchs have profited significantly from property acquisitions in the UK, benefiting from lower taxes and regulations promoted by the Tories alongside rising and unregulated rent in the private rental sector.
The Conservatives receive by far the most donations of any British political party, amounting to 37 million pounds in the last quarter of 2019 when the election took place, dwarfing the donations of every other party. Russian Oligarchs such as Lubov Chernukhin, wife of Vladimir Putin’s former deputy finance minister Vladimir Chernukhin, gave over 1.6 million pounds to the Conservative Party in recent years — and in doing this has been awarded a tennis match with Boris Johnson and David Cameron; dinner in the Churchill war rooms; another dinner with Theresa May and a seat next to Gavin Williamson at the Conservative’s winter ball. While Chernukin’s donations are legal and as with all large donations to parties have been recorded by the electoral commission, questions should be asked of the government why Russian oligarchs intrinsically tied to the Russian state are so keen to invest in a party which claims to take a hard stance on the Kremlin.
In 2018 Transparency International found that one-fifth of the £4.4 billion of ‘suspicious wealth’ owned in the UK, is held by Russians. The Conservatives have faced criticism for failing to introduce and ‘oligarch tax’ on empty properties bought by offshore persons and companies, and in allowing a tax haven by failing to introduce additional tax measures on the estimated one-fifth and one-quarter of offshore purchases of UK residential properties which come from Russian sources.
While the Russian interference report will not focus on issues such as the Conservative party’s donations from Russian oligarchs, it may shine a light on how susceptible the UK is to foreign interference. The reluctance of the government to publish the report before the 2019 General Election could be telling of its potential content, which will only become clear once it’s released next week. Hopefully, its overdue publication will lead to better protections in our democratic processes, which are highly susceptible to external interference.
While the government may respond to the report’s findings (if Russia are implicated in interference) with sanctions on Russia, they can only truly end external meddling into the country’s politics by eliminating the influence of wealthy foreign donors from questionable states. But if controversies such as that of Robert Jenrick’s awarding a billion-pound contract to a party donor earlier this month are any indication of the Conservatives’ aims, it’s more likely that the reliance on dubious donations isn’t on their to-do list.